Could there be ‘responsible’ dolphin shows or are some things beyond certification?

killer whales in the wild

In 1981 I went to Seaworld in California, aged 8 years old. I saw Shamu the killer whale, and went home with a beloved soft toy Shamu. It was one of the happiest days of my young life. Years later, while researching an article on the impact of captivity on killer whales, I discovered something which shattered my fond childhood memory. Shamu was dead.

Actually it was worse than that – Shamu wasn’t just dead. He’d died over and over again. No one seems too sure how many times he’s died. Because Shamu isn’t really a killer whale at all. He’s a brand. And while the killer whale formerly known as Shamu can be replaced by another (after all one black and white dolphin looks kind of like another), the association with a name, a brand, a friend for an impressionable 8 year old, cannot.

killer whales in captivity

Now jump forward to 2014, and Shamu (brand iteration 2014) and the 50 or so other captive orcas are in the news again, along with 2000 more dolphins in captivity around the world. This is partly because of the documentary Blackfish and the campaigns against captive dolphin programmes that it has energised. And most recently it’s due to the news that STA Travel has announced it will no longer offer dolphinarium visits. According to STA: “We are reviewing our entire portfolio of animal-focused tours. We take this seriously and listen carefully to feedback from animal welfare experts, customers and staff. If something isn’t up to our standards, we remove it.”

I’m afraid I find the news somewhat underwhelming. We could sit and read through reams of documentation about whether captivity is harmful for these creatures. We could read counterarguments about captive breeding, outreach work, impacts on the local economy, enabling people to witness these majestic creatures up close. We could read Seaworld’s rebuttal against STA, where they “share with them our high standards of care and the rigorous inspection and accreditation process that assures the health and well-being of our animals.”

Or we could say that this shouldn’t be about Seaworld or STA or any other company’s assessment of whether the standards are stringent enough. It shouldn’t be about standards and guidelines at all.

Rather, it should be about people pausing to reflect on why we still pay to watch 9-metre long cetaceans with 15 pound brains doing sequenced summersaults in a pool.

The country with the highest number of captive dolphin facilities is Japan, with 57. It’s also one of the main supporters of the whaling industry, and annually kills 1000s of dolphins in the waters around Taiji (while capturing several for resale to dolphinaria). Has having the world’s largest number of captive dolphin shows softened the Japanese heart towards these creatures, or simply reinforced the notion that these animals are there for our consumption, whether as meat or entertainment?

It isn’t about weighing up the balance of evidence as to the impact of captivity on these creatures versus a series of other metrics. It’s about examining an idea of who we are as human beings and what relationship we want with the world around us. And when it comes to Shamu – first and foremost a brand and an idea – it’s an idea whose time is done.

 This year at WTM, World Responsible Tourism Day will feature debates on a range of issues to do with tourism and animal welfare. More details soon.

  • Jeremy, I love reading your posts as you tell really interesting stories that weave and twist to the important end point. I wish I had your skill. The point made in the last paragraph is100% right. It’s not just about brand reputation and integrity but about the deeper issue of how we understand ourselves as human animals utterly dependent on all life forms for our survival and thrival – not sure there is such a word as thrival but wish there were.
    That’s why I’ve been sounding like a broken record when I say we need to get to the root cause of our challenges and open up our mindsets to inspection and ask whether the values and beliefs hidden there still work.

    We are suffering from the ubiquitous spread of the Midas touch. All discussions in the main stream media end up about money – how to make more and hoard more. The dominant worldview has commoditised everything – Nature now has value simply because we have created a concept called “natural capital” and all its wonder, mystery, complexity is reduced to a number on a balance sheet for the sterile algorithms of financial analysts to manipulate. No wonder that mental illness, alcoholism, obesity is on the rise – we’re sucking out the life blood – the juice – from Life itself. I don’t want to live in a world where my value or the value of all other life forms is measured by my capacity to produce and consume.

    Shamu was never a brand and the myriad of life forms that sustain each other on this planet and provide a scenic backdrop for our amusement are not products. They are kin – family – and until we change our way of seeing, the blog posts, comments, debates, accusations and recriminations won’t stop. We will however quicken the pace of extinction and impede any progress towards creating an economy that is environmentally sustainable, socially just and spiritually fulfilling.

  • Paulvinho

    While I agree with most of this your question about why we pay to watch 9ft cetaceans with 15lb brains do backflips got me thinking. Let’s face it we pay to watch 5ft primates with 3lb brains do backflips, and many more humiliating things in the name of entertainment. Unlike the dolphins they don’t even always get rewarded, just a vague promise of future rewards. Do you put dolphinaria and, say, Britain’s Got Talent or Olympic Gymnastics in the same bracket? Is it really wrong to want to see creatures do impressive things? Sure, you might say that the latter get to choose but even this is arguably debatable 😉 Great article.

  • Jeremy and Anna, your messages are superbly thought out and elucidated.
    While reading a post on Mongabay tonight a big Google Ad tried to tempt me with swimming with dolphins, by none other than ResponsibleTravel.com so I clicked to learn more. They make a point that seeing dolphins in the wild is much better than seeing them in captivity, but do explain that there is the potential to stress the animals or even change their behaviour if care isn’t taken.
    I’m sure limited dolphin / human interaction is not harmful. I am worried though that big advertising campaigns telling us we can swim with dolphins may be giving out the wrong message. A a YouTube video showing a wakeboarder riding with dolphins has been going viral recently. Swimming with dolphins is already on many people’s bucket lists and I’ve read a few travel blogs on the subject where the blogger ‘fulfilled their dream’. The message is swim with dolphins; the adverse risks are hidden in the small print. If the advertising campaign, viral video and blogs exert influence it will attract more people wanting to swim with dolphins or at least get up close. Companies will set up to meet the demand; not all of them with RT.com’s strict guidelines.
    All this doesn’t sit right with me. I’d appreciate your opinion Jeremy, either here or in another post.